Video Drone: What Happened to Kerouac?

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"You don't call four people a generation," argues poet Gregory Corso at the outset of What Happened to Kerouac?, a 1986 documentary by Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams that's been reissued on DVD by Shout! Factory with two and a half hours of interview outtakes. Corso may be right, but an endless series of movies have been drawn from the relationships among Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs. Two more are on their way down the pike as I write: On the Road, Walter Salles's adaptation of Kerouac's roman a clef novel, premiered at the Cannes film festival in May and is scheduled for an Oscar-qualifying run in December. Next year brings John Krokides's Kill Your Darlings, which dramatizes the 1944 homicide in New York City that involved Kerouac (Jack Huston), Burroughs (Ben Foster), and Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) as witnesses.


Directed by Richard Lerner and Lewis MacAdams, the latter of whom conducted the pointed interviews, What Happened to Kerouac? answers its own question with a single word: fame. The filmmakers draw heavily on two TV appearances by Kerouac, one at the outset of his celebrity and another after 11 years of it had turned him into an alcoholic wreck. On the late-night Steve Allen Show in 1957, a shy but game Kerouac reads ardently from his new novel, On the Road, as Allen tickles the keys. A different man shows up for William F. Buckley's public television show Firing Line in 1968, completely blasted and picking fights with Buckley and the other guests. (According to Ginsberg, Kerouac arrived at the studio expecting to be interviewed one-on-one about his books, but instead he was inserted into a vague panel discussion about the hippie movement, for which he had little respect.) The Firing Line footage leads you to another one-word answer—alcohol—and in fact Kerouac drank himself to death less than a year later.

What Happened to Kerouac? certainly belongs in the top echelon of movies about the Beats, principally because Lerner and MacAdams got to all the right people. Fellow writers Burroughs, Corso, Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, and John Clellon Holmes speak candidly and incisively about Kerouac and his work. Edie Parker Kerouac, Jack's first wife, and Carolyn Cassady, Neal's second, talk about their respective husbands and the odd dynamic between them (Cassady was the man's man and easy raconteur that Kerouac could only be on the page). Lewis interviews Ginsberg alongside Herbert Huncke, the junkie hustler who became a figure of fascination to Ginsberg and Kerouac in New York City during the war years. And Jan Kerouac—Jack's only child, whose mother had divorced Jack while she was pregnant—describes meeting her old man for the first time in the 60s, when he was slugging whiskey and watching The Beverly Hillbillies.

The second disc of the DVD release presents an array of interview outtakes in chapters running about five minutes, with 18 of the movie's witnesses, and it's a real kaleidoscope, delivering a much more varied and contentious summation of what the Beats were all about. The centerpiece is a "Political Fallout of the Beat Generation," a 17-minute condensation of a panel discussion by the same name that was held in 1982 at the Naropa Institute in Denver, Colorado. Moderated by Paul Krassner, editor of the Realist, it brings together Burroughs, Ginsberg, Abbie Hoffman, and Timothy Leary for a freewheeling debate over how much the literature of the 50s shaped the politics of the 60s. Burroughs claims the Beats had an immense influence on world culture, noting that their late-50s sojourn to Tangiers introduced powerful ideas about personal freedom into a Muslim culture. Hoffman points out that the obscenity trials over Howl and Naked Lunch where themselves political events, though like Kerouac, Burroughs takes a dim view of participatory politics: "Once a situation becomes a problem it thereby becomes insoluble, and all attempts to solve it are going to lead to more problems." The Beat Generation may well be insoluble, at least onscreen, but this package takes an admirable crack at it.

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